Professor Stefanie Onder joined SIS this past fall from the World Bank, where she was a senior environmental economist focusing on natural resources management. In addition to her training as an economist, Onder brings years of hands-on international development experience with the World Bank into the classroom.
How would you describe the field of environmental economics?
This field studies the effects of the economy on the environment, from the extraction of natural resources to air pollution and climate change, as well as the effects of the environment on the economy. Individual incentives and growth can end up hurting the environment, so environmental economists look at how we can best create sustainable policies and environmental solutions that take these interactions into account.
Why is environmental economics a critical area of study?
The environment is often overlooked, especially from a development perspective. When trying to lift people out of poverty, we focus on generating an income. But the problem is, by pursuing a pure growth agenda without considering how sustainable that growth is, we might pollute or destroy resources beyond repair. We all know that resources, and especially natural resources, are limited, but we typically take them for granted without really thinking about the economic value or how much they contribute to our daily lives. Bringing that sustainability aspect to development is critical.
Acknowledging that the poor strongly depend on natural resources is also an important part of the development discourse more broadly. Many of the world’s poor live in rural areas and survive by extracting the resources around them. If you want to help the poor, you have to understand how they depend on these resources.
How do environmental economics encourage sustainable economic growth?
People in the environmental community often don’t talk in economic terms. They talk about the biodiversity and about protecting animals and trees, but this doesn’t resonate with a finance minister or someone in a ministry of planning who has to make a financial decision. I think translating the value of the environment and ecosystem services into economic language that everybody can understand is very important. We need to take growth and sustainability, for not only this generation, but future generations, into account.
Do you bring any experience from outside the classroom to your position at SIS?
Working at the World Bank has shown me a lot of the world that people coming from a European or American context normally would not see. It’s hard to understand fully how poor people can be unless you’ve been in a shed with a Chinese farmer who owns one pig and feels rich. It’s quite incredible to understand what absolute poverty really means. Seeing absolute poverty in person was an eye-opening experience for me, and I’m hoping it will be helpful experience to share with students going forward.